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The Boston Phoenix City Life

Henry Roth's final novel evokes the world that shaped the man.

By James Surowiecki

MARCH 2, 1998: 

REQUIEM FOR HARLEM, by Henry Roth. St. Martin's

Press, 291 pages, $24.95.

Henry Roth was one of the few American writers lucky -- or unlucky -- enough to be forgotten, discovered, and then somehow discovered again. The first discovery came with the republication in the early 1960s of his 1934 masterpiece, Call It Sleep, which 30 years after it first appeared was finally hailed as one of America's great modernist novels. The second discovery came just four years ago, when Roth published A Star Shone Over Mt. Morris Park, the first volume in what would become a quartet of novels called Mercy of a Rude Stream. Beginning with a kind of reshaping of the events of Call It Sleep, Roth told the story of Ira Stigman, a son of Jewish immigrants growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, tormented by incestuous desire for his sister and by his parents' miserable marriage. With Requiem for Harlem, which finds Ira and his family living in Harlem while he attends City College, Roth (who died in 1995) produced a triumphant finale to his series, giving us an indelible portrait of the young man in the city.

Although quite a bit happens in Requiem for Harlem -- including incestuous sex, an abortion, and a near-murder -- the plot seems somehow beside the point, except insofar as it carries Ira out of the orbit of his family and into the world of Greenwich Village intellectual life, which is where he winds up at book's end. What narrative the novel does have centers on Ira's love for Edith Welles, an NYU professor of poetry who has become a kind of patron for him. His recognition that Edith may love him as well provides the necessary spur to get him out of Harlem and into the world that will make him a writer. As in the previous novels of the quartet, Roth breaks up this story with reveries on memory and writing, but here those digressions are minimal. The image of Ira walking the street -- not Roth at his computer -- is the one that dominates the novel.

The real genius of Requiem for Harlem is its ability to evoke a given place and time, and to make us see Ira as someone who lives in that place and time and no other. The novel reads not like historical fiction, but rather like contemporary fiction from an era long past. Roth shows how sexual and familial relations are all refracted for Ira through the prism of Freudianism -- for although Ira is not in analysis, Edith is, and the whole intellectual world around him is suffused with Freud. At the same time, Roth gives us the vague but constant presence of the late 1920s economy beginning to overheat beneath the surface, while situating Ira squarely in the middle of a city seen as a patchwork of ethnic communities only loosely stitched together.

Cultural and social particulars aside, though, Roth's language, especially in his descriptions of the urban landscape, seethes with a vibrancy difficult to imagine anyone achieving today:

Din, din. Honk, honk. Dong, dong, from here to the 14th Street trolleys. People and wheels. Shuffle and squeal. Glitter and gleam of windshield and hubcap. And sickly-sweet blue gasoline fume, and next him, the hot dog cart, under whose umbrella the proprietor sat reading, redolence wafted. . . . He saw himself for a moment as if formed and forged by a million, billion impacts of his surroundings.

The sense of a city as a living entity, inexorably shaping those who live in it, has rarely been better conveyed.

What seems most astonishing about this evocation of a vanished world is that it closes the distance between the author and his character. The same desperation that propels Ira, at the end of the novel, to get "the hell out of Harlem" also drives Roth's personal narrative toward some unstated possibility. Though written by a man on the verge of death -- and its title notwithstanding -- Requiem for Harlem is oddly unmournful. It's a book of the present tense.

This is a curious conclusion to draw about a novel that grapples rather explicitly with the problems of memory, and with an old man's attempt to bring some measure of order to his memories. Roth appears in Requiem for Harlem periodically, explaining why certain passages of the novel are less clear than they might be, meditating on the vagaries of recollection, and emphasizing his delight at being able to "prospect within his soul for what seemed to him its luminous treasure." But where in the previous books Roth carried on a philosophical dialogue with his computer, Ecclesias, here Ecclesias appears hardly at all. The more distanced contemplation that characterizes the earlier books has been replaced by a return to a kind of overwhelming interior lyricism.

The genius of Roth's work is his ability to fuse a profound sense of interiority -- a sense surely compounded by his metanarrative digressions -- with an ever-present awareness of how contingent that interiority is. When Ira imagines himself wearing "wax features that someone bashed with his fist, fractured and fell off," he recognizes the way in which his self-image and his self-presentation are inextricably shaped by and caught up in the social and cultural worlds he inhabits. If the typical modernist hero is the man standing alone, wrapped in the coils of his own spiritual barrenness, Ira is instead the man walking through the crowd, aware of himself but aware also himself in the crowd, part of the crowd. New York, in that sense, is a character in Requiem for Harlem just as much as Ira is. The great triumph of Roth's last novel, as it is the triumph of all his work, is its union of the social and the personal, its recognition that who we are depends always on where and when we are.


James Surowiecki writes for the Motley Fool and Slate, and is a regular contributor to the PLS.


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